In October 1974, I attended my first political meeting in Fairview, and there I met my MLA, Grant Notley. I was immediately taken with his vision for a better Alberta, and I listened as he invited us to join him in achieving it. That was the day my journey with the Alberta NDP started. In the years since, I have been a volunteer on many campaigns, I have served on the local executive, and I have run as a candidate several times. In 2015, I had the privilege to be elected as a member of Alberta’s first NDP government, and I proudly served as the first NDP energy minister.
As someone who has been both an observer of and a participant in election dynamics, both provincially and nationally, I was keen to read David McGrane’s The New NDP, which focuses on the federal NDP’s transformation between 2000 and 2015 — and the party’s dismal results in the last general election. McGrane builds his discussion around efforts to moderate and modernize, and he leaves it to the reader to judge whether the party has moderated and modernized itself appropriately.
The New NDP combines an accessible narrative, complete with fascinating interviews, and comprehensive data charts. McGrane’s thematic emphasis is compelling and persuasive, though he risks, at times, underplaying the role leadership plays in a party’s successes (and defeats).
In 1961, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress created the New Democratic Party. The founding convention laid the groundwork for an alliance between organized labour in Canada and the political left. Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan’s former CCF premier, would lead the party for nearly a decade. With a strong record, clear vision, and effective style, he set a new social-democratic agenda in this country.
As with all parties, the NDP grew and developed under subsequent leaders (David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, and Audrey McLaughlin would follow in Douglas’s footsteps), while policies and structures slowly evolved. For years, the NDP’s number of federal MPs would rise and fall, with loyalists largely content to be the party of social conscience in Ottawa. Following the 2000 federal election, however, the caucus counted just thirteen seats — a bitter defeat, representing a mere 8.5 percent of the popular vote. Increasingly, many considered it time to modernize and to re-evaluate that social conscience role. After the election of Jack Layton as leader, in 2003, the time was right for true change.
McGrane picks up the thread with the fallout from 2000 and the resignation of Alexa McDonough as leader in 2002. Drawing on in-depth quantitative and qualitative data, surveys, and more than 100 interviews, The New NDP discusses that devastating election, the subsequent soul-searching, and the elevation of Layton to leader of the official opposition, in 2011, followed by the sobering 2015 results.
McGrane argues three interrelated developments took place. First, the NDP under Layton went through a dramatic process of moderation and modernization: to use a business phrase, it professionalized. Second, the party finally had the coffers to undertake such a process and could hire the staff necessary to implement it. New operatives helped the party manage big data and identify potential voters. Third, this entire process enabled the NDP to steal market share from the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. Combined, this set the scene for a revitalized NDP, one poised to form government.
A key legacy of Layton’s eight-year leadership was the imposition of greater internal discipline, and a willingness for the party to dream big. Local campaigning changed, as decisions became more centralized, with less grassroots input. That local candidates attracted voters in 2011 who used to favour the Liberals and the BQ was no accident, McGrane shows. He discusses at length two parallel strategies and campaigns, one for Quebec and one for the rest of Canada. This is a real strength of the book, and a story that’s not been widely told.
Of course, the party has not been able to replicate the success of those parallel strategies. Soon after the 2011 election, Layton lost his battle with cancer. Under Thomas Mulcair, the NDP entered the 2015 election, which held the promise of even better results — possibly the chance to form government. Instead, it lost fifty-one seats, capturing just under 20 percent of the popular vote. So, ultimately, should the New Democrats have changed as dramatically as they did? Did they go too far and abandon their social conscience roots?
McGrane considers such questions in his final chapter and concludes with seven key lessons from the defining fifteen-year period. First of all, when you change the rules, you change the game. Money matters. Strategic voting is a fact of Canadian politics. While policies matter to electoral success, symbols, emotions, and momentum matter even more. The leader’s brand is, ultimately, the party’s brand. A ground game can take you only so far. And meeting voters where they are ideologically — as opposed to mobilizing non-voters or shaping policy preferences — comes with risk.
These lessons form something of a playbook for future campaigns and might well serve any progressive party. But as a lifelong student of leadership, I find two lessons particularly important: the role of symbolism and emotion in capturing voters’ attention, as opposed to trying to explain policy; and the importance of individual leadership for a party’s overall brand. McGrane might have examined this latter lesson further, by examining more closely the transition from Layton to Mulcair, their different styles, and the disconnects between their brands.
McGrane does not speculate on the outcome of the upcoming election, but The New NDP is decidedly relevant — for both voters and candidates. In practical terms, the federal NDP has no jurisdiction over provincial parties; it has not mandated a master election strategy for would-be MLAs or MPPs. Nonetheless, I saw many parallels with my own election experiences. Is this because of knowledge sharing among people who have worked both federally and in Alberta? Is it just a natural progression that comes with revitalizing a party? Or is it further evidence of the effect individual leadership has on the larger brand — the legacy of Layton’s NDP?
Election dynamics are ever-changing, as we all know, and we are experiencing a swing to the right across parts of Canada. Ultimately, voters can be unpredictable, despite the best efforts of many. In the eighteen months before my last election, I knocked on many doors, and the names of Grant Notley and Jack Layton came up often. People admired them as leaders, whether those people planned to vote NDP or not. “He was the best premier we never had,” they said of Notley. “He would have made a great prime minister,” they said of Layton. As anyone who has knocked on doors knows, voters often look for a leader before they look for policies. Will Canadians find a true leader this fall? Does true leadership even exist among today’s parties? Like McGrane, I’m making no predictions. But I believe success may well follow whatever campaign can best apply the lessons put forward in The New NDP.